Sunday, November 1, 2009

Round Corner Cantina, Pittsburgh, PA

Tam and I were meeting a friend at a local bar for a drink in September when he made a passing comment about a new, excellent Mexican restaurant that had only been serving food for two weeks. Regular readers of this space may remember that I've often bemoaned the lack of quality Mexican food in Pittsburgh, so this news excited us tremendously. It took us about ten minutes to settle our tab before we raced down to Lawrenceville to check it out for ourselves.

The Round Corner Hotel had been a Pittsburgh dive for as long as anyone I know here remembered, until a trio of Lawrenceville residents bought out the previous owner and transformed it into the Round Corner Cantina, a bar which also happens to now serve the best, high quality, straightforward Mexican street food in the city. We enjoyed our first meal there so much that we went back with friends the next week. Then popped in for a birthday dinner the week after that. And met another set of friends there last week. This place has quickly become our go-to spot for a low-key, fantastic meal.

We've tasted most of the menu by now, and our favorite item is the escabeche, fresh vegetables lightly pickled with vinegar, cilantro, and a hint of fresh hot pepper, which we've ordered on each visit. It comes in a mason jar with the lid popped off. A few thin wooden skewers are provided for diners to spear their veggies. On our first visit in late summer, the escabeche featured local cauliflower and snap peas, but as we move into fall, the contents are shifting towards carrots, pearl onions, and baby turnips. The crunchy veggies in the jars offer a glimpse at what our local farmers are currently harvesting in Western Pennsylvania.

Another of our favorites is the queso fundido con chorizo, which is divine in its simplicity and is directly inspired by similar dishes in taquerias across Mexico. The Cantina's version consists of a tiny cast iron pan filled with chihuahua cheese and finely diced chorizo, broiled until completed melted and bubbly in the middle, and slightly crispy around the edges. A basket of fresh, warm tortilla chips is provided to help scoop up each bite. This dish is laden with grease from the melted cheese and salty chorizo, but the small serving size keeps it from weighing the diner down.

Also, its hard to go wrong with the tacos. Served two to a plate in very lightly grilled corn tortillas, filled with the protein of your choice (with seitan available for vegetarians). I tend to prefer the carnitas, topped with queso fresco, thinly sliced radishes, diced onions, cilantro, and a wedge of lime. The pork doesn't have the salty crispiness of my favorite carnitas, but they are nonetheless sublime in their stewed smokiness.

The small menu will satisfy your inner carnivore with the carnitas or chicharrones, while vegetarians can enjoy interesting options ranging from a cactus salad and guacamole to elote.

The extensive drink list features over a dozen types of tequila and mezcal, inspired cocktails, and our favorites, the micheladas (we prefer the Mexican over the Spanish). The Mexican michelada consists of a mason jar of Mexican lager topped with a sprig of cilantro, a pinch of salt, a spear of hot pepper, and a splash of lime.

It didn't take long for word to get out, and the Round Corner Cantina has quickly emerged as a popular spot for drinks and bites among Pittsburgh's 20 and 30 something crowd. Early problems with understaffing seemed to have been sorted out on our last visit.

In the warm weather, the fenced in, grassy back yard takes on the feel of a mellow house party, with the wait staff shuttling out drinks and food from inside to the picnic tables and and benches filling the space.

Our same friend recently whispered a new rumour that the menu might be getting touched up for the winter. I know we'll keep checking it out, and suggest that anyone who's ever bemoaned the lack of good Mexican food in this city does the same. The drought is over!

The Round Corner Cantina is located in the beautiful Round Corner Hotel building at 3720 Butler Street in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighbourhood. You can check out their public Facebook page or call 412-904-2279 for more information. As a bar, entry is restricted to those 21 and over.

I apologize for the low quality of the pictures. The dim lighting and rich interior colours in the Cantina make for great atmosphere but difficult photography without a tripod.

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